Home / Opinion / Columns /  Navigating the haze of India's unlock rules

As India’s states have relaxed their lockdowns over the past few weeks, making sense of the conflicting and confusing regulations has seemed like an Indian Administrative Service exam full of trick questions. Consider the rule in Mumbai as it was opening up again that stores on the left side of the street could open on alternate days while those on the right could do business on other week days. Of course, determining what is on your right and what is on your left depends on which direction you are coming from. A store selling upmarket luggage devised a workaround: if questioned by the police, they would say that half their staff came from one end of Mumbai, while the other staff members approached from the other. The store pulled its shutters down anyway, but pasted a mobile phone number for customers to call.

Memes have been created and editorials written about several state governments’ decision to open restaurants and allow weddings before they opened parks. This is a global benchmark of illogic: Nearly anyone who reads a newspaper should know by now that the agile Sars-CoV-2 virus struggles to pass from one person to another outdoors, except in crowds, but thrives indoors in inadequately ventilated and air-conditioned settings. Besides, walking in parks is good for the lungs, and also lowers the risk of diabetes, both nationally mission-critical now. In Mumbai, nightclubs were allowed to reopen in January while schools remained closed.

What these random decisions add up to, says Yamini Aiyar, who heads the Centre for Policy Research, is the Indian bureaucracy’s “command and control approach to dealing with a pandemic". “There is little application of evidence to decision-making," she says, “It’s completely arbitrary." Last weekend, she and her husband and children were in their car with their masks below their chins when they were photographed by citizen volunteers seeking evidence of non-compliance with the government’s bizarre rule that even families seated in their own car must wear masks.

The puzzling prohibitions extend well beyond the bureaucracy to resident welfare associations (RWAs) and clubs. During last year’s lockdown, Bloomberg columnist Andy Mukherjee, who last month won the Society of Publishers in Asia award for opinion writing, coined the brilliant term ‘RWA uncles’ to describe this localized despotism. From New Delhi to Kanyakumari, India is governed by the mindset of RWA uncles, both in and out of government. This is a cohort of mostly privileged men, usually in their 60s and 70s—except for those in the civil service. Used to giving orders, they are less accustomed to listening. My apartment complex has an admirably calm and capable president, but, like so many, one inoculated against the logic of US’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advice. It states definitively that pools full of chlorinated water are safe so long as they are not over-crowded. When the government allowed pools to reopen several months ago, ours remained an eyesore.

Our CoWin website, with its linking of vaccine certificates to passports, could become a global paradigm. But, as many have pointed out, it is almost too far ahead of India, circa 2021, where connectivity is often slow and digital literacy limited, which perhaps explains why our vaccination rate shot up from under 2 million a day in May to about 5.8 million daily from 21 June through 28 June after walk in registrations were allowed for all age groups. Four-fifths of those vaccinated thus far did not use CoWin. As for the claim of a vaccine certificate acting as a de facto vaccine passport, a friend visiting Switzerland recently tried to pull his up and received this message: “This website is currently not available in your country or region." When he used a device to mask his location, he was able to access his certificate—but only if he used his wife’s mobile number rather than his own.

I had my own share of being scolded and bounced by CoWin for “trying too many times". Yet, when I arrived at a well-ventilated and gigantic marriage hall in south Bengaluru last Friday, a vision of paradise appeared. Big-tent shaamianas shielded us from the afternoon sun as we waited outside. We then marched to the vaccination room in an uncrowded hall. It was over in a matter of minutes. As so often in India, this picture of efficiency was probably because this vaccine centre was run by women, who were business-like yet caring. If only women could be in charge more often in India, I thought. But, that hope could have been a hallucinatory reaction to my AstraZeneca jab, developed by an Oxford team led by a woman scientist, Sarah Gilbert.

My delusions continue, alas. On 1 July, a group of fluid mechanics researchers outlined in the Indian Express how to safely manage indoor air-flow as restaurants and offices reopen—by, for instance, ensuring that windows are kept open and using large pedestal fans. Reading its eminently sensible advice, I fantasized about issuing a firman: Memorizing it by Monday morning should be required of all senior decision-makers across India. This wasn’t a case of vaccine overdose. The trouble is, I am just a few years from reaching RWA uncle status myself.

Rahul Jacob is a Mint columnist and a former Financial Times foreign correspondent.

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